The problem to which I seek to draw the attention of the House at this unearthly hour in the morning is a growing and serious one throughout the country. It is the problem of child abduction—child stealing—which has faced many of my constituents over the past three and a half years.
In my constituency of Wood Green in north London, over the past two years I have had drawn to my attention three cases in which women have had their children, who were living with them at the time, abducted by their fathers. One would have thought that that might have been a chance happening, were it not for the fact that many women throughout the country have recently come together in an organisation to try to draw attention to their plight. It is a multi-faceted plight and that is why I am concerned about the attitude of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office towards this matter, which affects both Government Departments.
When one talks to Foreign Office officials they say that the number of abduction cases with which they deal can be counted on perhaps the fingers of four hands during one year. That is the tip of the proverbial iceberg, for a number of reasons. First, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not see many of the cases that are to be found in the community. It deals only with cases of children who have been taken abroad or who are now believed to be abroad. I suspect that, similarly, the Home Office does not see the children and the women who are involved because many people are deterred from raising the matter with Government Departments, having once raised it with the police.
I want to try to show this morning the practical difficulties that face my constituents and women throughout the country. It is mainly women who are affected by the problem. They face practical problems because of the enormous difficulty that they are in and because of the feeling of powerlessness that they have about the enormous problems that are being placed on their shoulders.
I do not wish to ask the Minister to answer problems relating to specific cases, but rather to refer to the generalities of the problem. However, all the cases that I have had to deal with over the past three or four years have been extremely heartbreaking because of the problems that the women have had to face. I wish, for the benefit of the House, to place on record a demonstration of the practical difficulties that these women face.
I do so by describing one case in my constituency, which began in 1980. On 23 February 1980, Mr. Mohammed Waseem drugged his wife Seema and two teenage daughters Sameena and Rubeena. During the night he abducted the two youngest children of the family, Khalid, then aged 12, and Shahina, then aged only one, and took them to Pakistan.
The family live in my constituency, but the children were taken in the middle of the night, and it is believed that there was some collusion between Mr. Waseem and other members of the family over the abduction. Mr. Waseem had planned the abduction unbeknown to his immediate family for some time, when in the preceding months he had talked them into moving from their comfortable home in Enfield to a fairly run-down house in Wood Green. He told them that this was to release the capital tied up in the house so that he could set up in business on his own and leave his work with the Civil Service.
However, Mr. Waseem's real intention was to steal the money, which amounted to £26,000, from the sale of the house in Enfield, and which was then in the bank, leaving his wife and daughters with the massive mortgage of £20,000 and no means of support. Incidentally, he removed the £26,000 from the joint bank account on only his signature without the bank querying his withdrawal. When he left, taking the children with him, Mr. Waseem took the family's passports and his wife's jewellery.
There is also some evidence that Mr. Waseem may have sawn a gas pipe in half so as to destroy the house and the people in it. These were the actions of a man who had very little regard for human dignity or for the family with whom he had lived for such a long time.
After these incidents in 1980, Seema Waseem's life became tragic. She has had to fight for supplementary benefit to live, to keep her home, and, worst of all, for the return of her two children. Khalid and Shahina are both British citizens born in the United Kingdom, and they have been made wards of court through the judicial process in this country.
However, because the children have been removed from Britain, Mrs. Waseem had to go to Pakistan to fight for their return. She therefore had to leave Britain in the summer of 1981, and did not return until autumn 1982. Court proceedings were extremely long-drawn-out, not least because at one stage her husband attempted to bribe the clerk of the court in Pakistan to hold things up.
Seema Waseem obviously had no means of paying for her passage to Pakistan. After her husband left her, she had no means of support. She had no job. She had to go to the local DHSS office to claim supplementary benefit, as was her right. In itself, of course, supplementary benefit does not provide the wherewithal to purchase air tickets for Pakistan. No practical assistance was available from the state for the legal costs of fighting an action in Pakistan to recover the children. No legal aid is available for court cases conducted abroad to recover abducted children. I want to take up that point with the Minister later.
Therefore, Seema Waseem had to leave for Pakistan with no financial support of her own, knowing that in fighting for the return of her children, she would incur huge debts. She had to leave behind her two teenage daughters who were both at college. They had to fend for themselves and cope with the bills and problems to which their dilapidated house in my constituency gave rise. Incidentally, they coped extremely well with that dreadful ordeal.
What then happened is extremely instructive. Having taken the matter—as she was advised to do by me and by the Foreign Office officials whom we saw—through the courts in Pakistan, she eventually, after a lengthy legal process, won a whole series of court cases, including appeals by her ex-husband against the court's first decisions. I am now happy to say that she has almost completed all the legal processes in Pakistan. I believe that there is only one formal hearing still to come in that country, and it is expected that it will be finalised this month.
However, her basic problem still remains. She still has not managed to recover her children. She still does not know quite where they are and the problems that she has experienced as a result of that traumatic event in her life are extraordinarily complex. They show, in miniature, some of the problems that such women face. I should like to place them on record, because Ministers do not yet fully understand such matters. I say "fully understand", because I accept that there has been a change in the attitude of the Foreign Office recently, which I greatly welcome.
I shall outline the common strands in the Waseem case and the two other cases that I have had to deal with as a constituency Member of Parliament during the past three and a half years. First, it is plain that in most cases it is the women who lose their children, and the men who take them away. Indeed, when the Minister recently met a delegation at the Foreign Office, he must have been as impressed as I was by the balance of the sexes. I think that there was one man in the delegation, and about eight or 10 women. I suspect that that balance is a true reflection of the numbers of men and women who are affected. Thus, child abduction becomes an issue of women's rights, as well as one of equality, fair play and fair dealing.
There is a second common strand in these cases. Often the parents do not know where their children are. That was what happened with Mrs. Waseem. Although she knew that, initially, the children were in Pakistan, she did not know whether they had been taken elsewhere. It was thought at one time that they might have been abducted to Libya, as Mr. Waseem's brother was in the Pakistan air force and was thought to be based in that country. Nor did she know where they were in Pakistan, if they were in that country.
The same thing happened in the other cases which arose in my constituency. One case involved a woman whose two children were taken by her ex-husband to Italy. She did not know, when she came to see me for the first time, where her children were. In the third case in my constituency, again the woman did not know where her children were. She did not know which country they were in—in Britain or in another country to which her ex-husband might have taken them. Women, or parents, feel powerless in such cases. They may not know where their children are. They may not be able to cope with the multiplicity of practical problems that beset them, and we in this House should take seriously the practical difficulties facing those women.
That brings me to the third common factor in these cases—the multiplicity of problems that the women face, once financial support has been removed from them. I do not suggest that women are incapable of looking after themselves. Of course not. However, in many cases they are forced to rely on supplementary benefit and they are faced with many difficulties.
First, there is a practical problem. Some of their money may have been stolen. There may also be the difficulty of claiming supplementary benefit. Although it is easy to go to the local DHSS office and claim the basic scale rate of supplementary benefit, when it comes to paying the legitimate mortgage interest costs of an owner occupier in this situation, the DHSS has a discretion not to pay if it thinks that the costs are unreasonable, or to pay part of the costs if it thinks that the total costs of the interest are unreasonable.
My constituent, Mrs. Waseem, had to fight extremely hard, with my assistance, to get the local DHSS office to pay those costs, because without that practical assistance she would rapidly have become homeless. As it happened, because she still had two children in full-time education, the local authority would have had a statutory responsibility to rehouse her under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. It would, however, have been another enormous hassle for her and her family. Luckily, it did not come to that.
Another practical difficulty is the problem of whose name the house is in. If it is a tenancy, particularly a local authority tenancy, the tenancy is often in the name of both the man and the woman. The same is true in the case of an owner-occupier. One difficulty for the woman is obtaining a property transfer order when notice cannot be served through the court on the respondent. There is a long-drawn-out process whereby the woman has to try to regularise her position in relation to her own housing.
That is not all. If a woman or a parent has to go abroad to fight the court cases that are necessary to recover abducted children, it is obvious that during the period that she is away the existing home still needs servicing. Money is required to keep it going. Someone has to pay the rates, the gas bill, the electricity bill and perhaps the telephone bill. For those on supplementary benefit, the local DHSS office pays the benefit in the normal manner to a named householder claimant while that person is in England and for a short period of four weeks if it is necessary for the person to leave the country for a legitimate purpose. After the four weeks, benefit stops. Unless there is someone else in the household who can claim supplementary benefit, the home itself is threatened. There is no means of getting finance into the house to keep it going.
Many of my constituents, including at least two of the women I have been speaking about, were in that position. They had to travel to a foreign country to try to win back their children while, at the same time, dealing with an enormously complicated set of practical difficulties placed in their way by the operation of the local welfare state. It is a real problem for these women. I do not believe that these problems are properly appreciated in all their detail and power by the Government. One of the purposes of this debate is to try to draw the attention of Ministers to these serious practical problems.
Matters may not progress to the extent that I have described. If children are abducted, it is possible that the parents will say that they have looked for them in all possible locations in the United Kingdom but cannot find them, that they have insufficient money to go to another country to continue their search, that they have not sufficient money to pay for legal assistance in that country where legal aid is not available and that they therefore give up. It is extraordinary that parents are being forced into that position by the weight of practical problems which is placed on their shoulders.
Parents are faced with three choices. First, they can go to another country and fight a battle through the courts which might be extremely costly in all its aspects. Secondly, they can do nothing. They can say that they simply cannot afford it and give up. Thirdly, they can short-circuit the legal process and attempt to snatch their children back from their ex-spouses if they know where they are. Frankly, I do not believe that those options are in the best interests of either the parents or the children. For all those practical reasons, there should be a change in the way in which both the Foreign Office and the Home Office go about their business in child abduction cases. There is also a strong case for changes in international law to make more easy the recovery of children who have been removed from their homes in the United Kingdom.
I want to draw to the attention of the House some of the enormous problems which parents face when their children are abducted in relation to the attitude of the Foreign Office and the Home Office. The clear advice which is given by Foreign Office officials in the consular section if a parent goes to see them because a child has been removed is that the battle must be conducted through the courts in the country where the children are believed to be. That advice is given to everyone; it is impartial and general.
The Government's general attitude seems to be that, as this is a domestic or civil matter, a matter between spouses who have lived in the same home and had children, they cannot intervene. That is a convenient way for the Government to get themselves out of the difficulty of having to do something about it. It also reflects both international and United Kingdom law.
When parents go to a foreign country to try to recover their children they take the battle through the courts. They may approach the consul in the country for assistance. Very often—certainly in the case of one of my constituents—that assistance was denied. I do not want to make a meal of this because I know that the Government have changed their policy—and a good thing, too—but some British representatives in some countries in the past have told parents who have come to see them that they cannot intervene in such matters because they are domestic and civil rather than criminal. They say that they cannot interfere with the courts of the other country and that they can do nothing except ask for a welfare report on the children concerned. That is little comfort indeed to parents who have had their children removed and who, quite rightly, regard the removal of those children as a crime.
I welcome the way in which the Government have issued a new circular to their consulates throughout the world urging them to be more helpful to parents who ask for assistance in other countries. That is long overdue. Parents facing practical problems in other countries will greatly welcome the assistance of the United Kingdom Government in seeking to make representations to other Governments about the location of their children and also about the long delays in the legal process that can be extremely costly and frustrating and destroy the chances of parents getting their children back at all.
The new Foreign Office circular will be helpful. Unfortunately, that is not all. There are two other problems to which the Government must turn their mind. The first point is of international law. A delegation from the new organisation of parents who have had their children abducted went to see the Minister of State. He made the pertinent statement that if they were in favour of reciprocity between countries, of being able to go to foreign countries and getting their children back because of a court decision made in the United Kingdom, it must follow that the same would be true of parents coming to the United Kingdom in the belief that their children had been abducted and brought here. They would be able to enforce in the United Kingdom a court order made in another country.
I and the parents who saw the Minister say that that is right, but they accept that there are several practical problems. No doubt the Minister will receive representations from some hon. Members about constituents threatened with the removal of their children as a consequence of court orders made in another country. That must be considered very carefully. On balance, I, and I am sure many of those parents who have been affected already, favour the idea of reciprocity. The Hague convention ought to be endorsed and implemented as swiftly as possible.
The Home Office is involved when a child is thought to be in the United Kingdom. If that is so, the matter proceeds through the High Court. The children are searched for by the police. The missing persons department of the Metropolitan Police, in the case of London, takes action on the instructions of the tipstaff of the High Court. The tipstaff of the High Court has extremely limited resources. Only three or four people actually work in that department. They do not have the resources to track down or follow all the leads that undoubtedly exist in any particular case. The police are sometimes reluctant to act on information that they receive from other sources about the possible location of children who have been abducted within the United Kingdom. They are reluctant to do so, first, because they receive their instructions from the tipstaff of the High Court and, secondly, because it is a civil offence and not a criminal offence.
Responsible and decent policemen concerned about this issue have told me that they would do more about abduction cases if it was a criminal rather than a civil offence. We in the House of Commons should demand a change in the law in Britain to make child stealing or child abduction a criminal rather than a civil offence.
These brave parents must overcome the great difficulty of finance. They are faced with enormous problems over arrangements in the United Kingdom. They face the great difficulty of fighting court battles, sometimes many thousands of miles away, with no legal assistance. Therefore, there ought to be some way in which they can claim on a fund to finance the attempt to recover their children.
The Minister should consider the possibility—no doubt he would have to consult his Government colleagues—of setting up a fund, paid for by the taxpayer, from which parents could claim if they were forced to fight to get their children back to the United Kingdom. The creation of such a fund is long overdue. It would have to be means-tested, and there is no reason at all why that should not be the case. In any event, parents must have somewhere to go to for practical help.
This is not a small problem. The Minister may argue that such parents can go to a registered charity to obtain financial assistance, but the problem is that most registered charities will not make grants to individuals. They must be made to other registered charities or to corporate bodies. Therefore, there is an enormous problem about the individual obtaining a financial grant from a charity. Even if he does, it is unlikely to cover more than a small fraction of the costs of fighting a court case or meeting travelling expenses.
The Government must now turn their attention to the possibility of establishing such a fund to enable parents to have an equal chance of getting their children back. Many parents—certainly the women to whom I have spoken from my constituency and elsewhere—feel that they are fighting with one arm tied behind their backs and with the weight of enormous problems around their heads. Our job this morning is to try to relieve them of some of those burdens and to assist them in a traumatic period of their lives. We should do something practical for women or parents who have faced one of the most awful things that can ever happen to a human being—the abduction of their children. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
I ask for leave to address the House again.
I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Race) about the importance of the subject, and he has taken us fairly and thoroughly through the problems that have occurred in his constituency. I am glad that we have this opportunity to go over the ground again, because since the House last discussed the general problem and also a particular case in an Adjournment debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) two days before Christmas, we have taken some decisions on the matter and others may be taken before long.
The hon. Member for Wood Green referred to the very useful and, for me, instructive meeting on 26 January with a delegation led by his hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) and including the hon. Gentleman himself, the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Harrison) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence). They brought with them Mrs. Burt, who has taken the initiative in forming the new self-help group to which the hon. Gentleman referred and a number of her colleagues all of them parents who in one way or another had been through the anxiety and anguish of losing one or more of their children, at any rate temporarily. Not all were abduction cases, and I appreciate that the anxiety and anguish are probably greatest in such cases.
I am very glad that that group has been formed, as I believe that it will be useful for individuals. When new cases are brought to our attention we do our best to help in the ways that I shall describe, but we also suggest that the parent concerned gets in touch with and perhaps joins that group.
The hon. Gentleman described briefly one of the cases in his constituency—that of Mrs. Waseem. As he specifically said that he did not wish me to go into detail about it, I shall not do so, but, as he said, we now expect the final decision of the Pakistan court before the end of the month and our consulate general in Karachi has asked to see the Home Secretary of the Sind Government to request action by the Pakistan police regarding the father's unlawful detention of the children and his failure to present them in the civil court. I appreciate that this case has gone on for a very long time and caused Mrs. Waseem great trouble and sadness, but I hope that there will be a good outcome before too long.
I wish to tackle the general points under three main headings. The first concerns the role of the Home Office, which has equipped me with something to say which I hope the hon. Gentleman will not find entirely negative. Under section 56 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861, it is an offence in this country to abduct a child under the age of 14 by force or fraud. That offence is extraditable, because it is listed in schedule 1 to the Extradition Act 1870.
The Criminal Law Revision Committee has recently examined this area of the law and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, in its fourteenth report on offences against the person, published in 1982, it recognised that in certain circumstances the definition in section 56 of the 1861 Act, especially the requirement that force or fraud must be an element if it is to be a criminal offence, had given rise to difficulty. The committee therefore suggested that there should be a new offence of child abduction. It would be a defence to the new offence that the abductor was the child's parent, except where the intention was to take the child unlawfully out of the country. The new offence would, like the existing offence in section 56, be extraditable.
The Government have considerable sympathy with the reasoning put forward by the committee in that part of its report. However, it deals with a wide range of other matters on which some of the arguments are less clear cut. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary does not feel that the time is yet ripe for comprehensive legislation in that area. I take the hon. Gentleman's point—he raised it with me also on 26 January—and I shall draw the attention of the Home Secretary to it. As my right hon. Friend assesses the committee's recommendations, he will wish to look carefully at the point about abduction and any recent experience, such as that adduced by the hon. Gentleman.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, international law is an important part of the argument and, perhaps, of our hopes for improving the position of parents in the plight that he described. There are two forthcoming international conventions that could be helpful. There is the European convention on recognition and enforcement of decisions concerning custody of children and on restoration of custody of children 1980. We have signed that, and are considering ratification. We are also considering whether we should sign and ratify a second convention, which is an international convention going wider than the membership of the Council of Europe, that being the Hague convention on civil aspects of international child abduction 1980. That convention would deal with the practice of international child abduction by providing procedures to ensure that the right of custody and access under the law of one contracting state are effectively respected in another contracting state.
My right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has recently issued a consultation document about the Hague convention. He has set out, at great length, the proposals of the convention and also discussed its relationship with the European convention. He has asked that all interested people should, by 29 April, give his Department their views on whether Britain should sign and ratify the Hague convention and ratify the European convention. The hon. Gentleman has given his views on that. I am glad that he reproduced faithfully a point that I made at our meeting, that it is no good supposing that the internatonal obligation would be only one way. It would not simply be a matter of enabling a British parent with British court orders, in cases covered by the convention, to recover children who had been taken abroad by the other parent. It would also enable parents living overseas to come to Britain with foregin court orders to obtain children presently living here.
I suspect that we might have debates of an opposite nature as parents with children living in Britain found that they might be removed from them because of an order granted in a foreign court. That would be the consequence of Britain adhering to one or both of the conventions. It must be weighed against the advantages explained by the hon. Gentleman. All those interested in this important matter should take advantage of the consultation and let the Lord Chancellor have their views by 29 April.
As the hon. Gentleman recognised, in the present state of international law, when the two conventions are not in force in respect of Britain, children are under the jurisdiction of the courts in the country in which they happen to live. British court orders, or the fact that the children are wards of a British court, do not automatically mean that the orders are applicable where the children happen to live. We have to deal with the courts and authorities of the country where the child happens to be. That is the major stumbling block with which, understandably in their distress, some parents do not come to terms. There is nothing that the Foreign Office can do to overcome that basic point.
The hon. Gentleman spent a good deal of his speech on the financial troubles of parents who have to fight a case overseas and may also face a good number of complicated financial problems at home. I understand that. I note his proposal that there should be a special fund of public money to help such parents. We shall examine that, though it is not essentially a matter for the Foreign Office. I cannot this morning hold out any hope of providing such a fund.
As the result of the previous Adjournment debate and the number of cases that have recently been brought to my attention, I have re-examined, with officials, the scope of the help that our consula posts abroad and in London can give parents in these circumstances. As the hon. Gentleman fairly said, we are sending out new instructions this week—I approved the draft at the end of last week. There are various ways in which, for some time, consuls have helped parents in these circumstances, and there are other ways which I believe they can and should use. I shall briefly list the seven points in the circular.
Consuls will continue to provide lists of local lawyers to enable parents to pursue their case in the local courts. They will also try to obtain welfare reports on abducted children and, if possible, visit them. They will continue to give any help that they can with regard to granting access to children, on the understanding that that is essentially a matter for the jurisdiction of the local courts.
The first new element is that we are giving consuls discretion and encouragement to draw the attention of authorities in the countries to which they are accredited details of British court orders that affect the children. British court orders do not have an effect in law in those foreign countries, but it might be useful for a foreign court to take account of the review of the facts and the conclusion reached by a British court.
Consuls will also do anything that they properly can to help bring about a speedy conclusion of legal proceedings. Many of these cases involve delay. Mrs. Waseem's case involved delay. The law has its delays in any country, but sometimes it is suspected that the delays go on because the issue is being avoided. It is right that a consul should be able to say at a certain stage whether a country's processes can move faster on a case.
A consul may be asked to approach the local authorities for help to trace abducted mothers. This is also relevant to the Waseem case—the parent who is living here is not sure where the children are. There is a case in the United States where that is especially true. It is right that our consuls should enlist, where they can, the help of the local authorities to trace abducted minors.
Finally, we are emphasising to our representatives ways in which they can be helpful when access has been agreed but there is a difficulty as to where the parent can see the child. I see no objection to their seeing them on embassy property, whether it be the consul's office or another suitable part of the building, or why he should not help, if that is not possible, to find a suitable place.
Those are not major or revolutionary steps. They do not change the basis on which the troubles occur. I cannot hold out hope of a fund that would relieve the financial side. However, those procedures could take the edge off some of the anxieties and difficulties. Many of the Parents wander into a world of which they know little, of overseas lawyers and all sorts of difficulties. It must be right that our official representatives should give what help and sympathy they can in a common sense way. I hope that it is now established that we should do that.
I am grateful to the Minister for placing on record the details of the circular that he is issuing to our consulates throughout the world. Will he make it clear to our overseas representatives that those cases must be taken on their merits and must not be influenced by other considerations that may arise in relations between the United Kingdom Government and the Government of another country? Great offence has been caused to parents who have asked for the protection and assistance of British consular staff, only to be told that it would be difficult for them to raise that case with the authorities in that country because of the problematic relations between the United Kingdom Government and that Government.
The consul has to decide how best he can help. If for reasons that have nothing to do with the case, our consul is not in a good position—if our relations with the country are bad, or its standards of justice are so completely different from ours that there is a great gap—it may be difficult for him to help. I am in favour of frankness in those cases. If there is a real difficulty and he sees no prospect of being able to help, and if the mere mention, for example, of a British court order might turn the thing the wrong way and be interpreted as an act of interference, the consul must explain matters as best he or she can to the parent. There are difficulties. What we can usefully do depends on the circumstances, which vary widely.
I am trying to set out ways in which we are giving discretion and encouragement to our consuls to be helpful. They must decide, in the light of the circumstances, which of the methods is best suited to the case. We are talking about dual nationals in the Waseem case. If the children are dual nationals of Britain and the country in which they are at the time, the consul must take that into account, because the courts will do so.
I thank the hon. Gentleman again for introducing this subject. I hope that he and other hon. Members who have constituency cases will encourage the parents concerned to get in touch as early as possible with the consular department of the Foreign Office, either direct or through me. We have given much thought to the matter in the past few weeks. I hope that the new arrangements will be an improvement and that they will take some of the edge out of the anxiety. It would be helpful from our point of view if parents who are in trouble came to us early before they are deep into the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman described.